Shellfish and Vegan Nightmares

One of the coolest things about starting the blog and transitioning from merely a food fan into a public voice on food is meeting and befriending other likeminded peeps. You met Dan from Tasting Binghamton a couple weeks ago, when we cross-blogged on Burger Mondays. This week, I want to introduce you to my new food friend Gabe. I cyber-met Gabe last fall, when I reviewed Fireside at Partridge Berry Inn for the blog with my sister and her boyfriend. Josh is a chef, and he and Mary have been friends with Gabe for awhile, so when Gabe took over the cooking reins at Fireside upon the departure of Shawn Vendetti, he read the blog and said hello. We’ve been Facebook friends ever since, comparing foodie books, talking Top Chef All Stars, and getting to know each other’s culinary point of view.

Gabe let me know a couple months ago that he had defected from Fireside and was headed to Bella’s Bistro, in Clayton. Now, you may know already that Clayton, like Sackets Harbor, is one of my favorite spots in the North Country. Usually, we stick to Koffee Kove and the Riverside Café in town, but for a couple years we’ve looked at Bella’s and said, “We need to check that place out.” This past weekend’s Highway Legends Car Show, at which our Miss TI titleholders appeared, gave us our chance.

My immediate impression upon entering and being seated in the front dining room (back from the street, on the water, means front) was of bright, airy colors, antique, comfy tables and chairs and fabulous art. The view from my seat was of my favorite color and a Ringer painting of my favorite mansion/island in the Thousand Islands:

Top row, second from the left is the green mansion you can see from shore in Alex Bay

The reason for all the Ringers? The owner of Bella’s, Missy, is Michael Ringer’s daughter. And not only was the view from my chair sunny, but so was my Mom’s:

Note the lack of railing on the deck

And just for good measure, I’ll show you Dad’s view as well:

How can you not be happy just to sit in this space?

But hold on to your jet skis, Hungries, because Bella’s is not just a pretty face. Turns out, my pal Gabe, whom I had never met in person until this night, is somewhat of a gangster in the kitchen. Now, reading my new policy, which is linked from the homepage of NNYorker and here: http://nnyorker.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=857, you might infer that I was a little nervous to review someone I already considered a buddy. What if I hated everything and had to spill the beans on that? Well, the fates were kind to me, and the food measured up to the lively décor.

We began with two appetizers: crab cakes and bruschetta. But even before they emerged from Bella’s narrow galley kitchen, out came a perfect domed loaf of bread with a very light herbed oil for dipping. It was yeasty and chewy – fantastic. The crab cakes, which Mom also ordered as her entrée, were deep golden and crispy on the outside while creamy and fine inside. We divined that these were more of a New England-style cake than a Chesapeake Bay variety, as the crabmeat was more finely textured that Maryland’s lump. But they were packed with crab, the texture was pleasing, and the Dijon horseradish sauce accompanying them was a perfect, citrusy touch.

Won’t make you crabby

The bruschetta was on par, and actually very similar to, the offering at Tony’s in Endicott: great crusty bread, bright red tomatoes, crisp red onion and syrupy balsamic. My parents are now officially obsessed with balsamic drizzle, which is really just balsamic vinegar reduced down to a sweet syrup, and I believe I shall have to make some for them. The most dramatic thing to me about this dish was how the kick of the raw red onion counterbalanced the sweet drizzle perfectly. Well done.

Balsamic, meet your match

Dad ordered the strawberry chardonnay haddock, an inventive and unique dish. It had a lot going on: firm fish topped with a gorgeous blush sauce of fresh pureed strawberries and a touch of dry white wine, herbaceous rice pilaf kissed with basil oil, and a Greek-inspired cucumber salsa on top. This is spa cuisine if I’ve ever seen it, a light, refreshing dish that will tantalize many palettes.

The basil oil is clutch

I had the filet Oscar, which also happened to be served on top of a crab cake. This tender, thick medallion of beef was crowned with a very light béarnaise sauce finished with white truffle oil. I thought the truffle oil would make it incredibly rich, but instead, it was finessed and ethereal. I have no idea how a béarnaise could ever be that balanced – it’s a butter sauce, for crying out loud – but this was. In addition, the plate was absolutely lousy with crabmeat – not only was the filet perched atop a crab cake, but there was additional crabmeat hiding beneath the asparagus and sauce. This dish gilded the lily in the best possible way.

I ate asparagus, and I liked it

And then it was time for dessert. Gabe and his cohort, Andy, concocted a really diabolical dish especially for me: the Vegan Nightmare. This is the culinary equivalent to paying someone to be friends with you. Maple ice cream topped fried dough strips sprinkled with cinnamon and joined by…wait for it…chocolate covered bacon. Oh, yeah. I hope they decide to add this to the menu, not just as a BHS special, because it was stupendous. The first thought that came to my mind as I combined the chewy bacon, sweet chocolate and decadent ice cream in my mouth was, “Why don’t all desserts contain salted, cured meats?” For those of you who have never tried this salty/sweet combo, let me assure you: it is delicious. Think of chocolate chip pancakes with a side of bacon, and you can recognize this pairing. For me, a bacon enthusiast on a good day and an all-out obsessive on others, this gigantic dish was a dream.

Vegan Nightmare. Hee.

This is the first season Bella’s has served dinner. You may have been before for lunch or breakfast, but I encourage you to give it a try in the evening. The atmosphere is laid back and casual, while the food is avant garde and executed with care. If you’re bored with the usual Thousand Islands dinner choices and are looking for a little adventure this summer, Bella’s is a great choice. Beware, that deck out front? It doesn’t have a railing. I’m assuming that if you can’t pay your bill, they throw you in the River. But at $106 for dinner for three, with appetizers, two rounds of drinks and dessert, I don’t think the prices here will throw you on their own. We graded Bella’s a nine on the BHS scale, leaving room for improvement as Gabe settles in. I think adding some starch options or salad starters to the entrees would be something to consider, for instance. I must also add that our waitress, Jessica, was an absolute ray of sunshine, and the entire staff was warm and friendly. I‘m hoping this wasn’t due to a blogger being in the house, and I suspect it wasn’t. I saw smiles on the faces of other patrons, and the people sitting out on the Deck of Peril looked positively joyful, dining in the late afternoon sun.

A programming note for you Northern New Yorkers finally emerging from the overcast gloom of spring: The Hops Spot is now open on the main drag in Sackets, serving microbrews in a hip, modern atmosphere. Mary and I visited last Friday night and had a ball chatting up the owner, Ron, and barkeep. I will save a full review for a future date, once they have the kitchen up and running full speed, but you may want to drop by in the meantime. Here’s a glimpse:

This spot is hoppin’

As ever, I hope you enjoyed this week’s journey to the River’s edge, and all the delights it brings. If you’ve been to Bella’s for dinner or want to share an early Hops Spot review, find your refuge in the comments below. My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!

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